Atlanta's sewer system has been under federal oversight for nearly 20 years. Now, an independent office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is looking at how well Atlanta has complied with its agreements to clean up water pollution and how well the EPA has overseen it.
U.S. Congressman John Lewis wrote to the EPA Office of Inspector General asking for a review earlier this year.
“Concerned citizens have raised environmental and public health concerns regarding compliance possibly in Atlanta, Georgia, and across the country,” he wrote in a letter obtained by WABE.
In the review, the inspector general's office will look at Atlanta’s compliance and the regional EPA office’s oversight.
“The consent decrees that EPA has set up with municipalities including Atlanta are expensive and they're extensive,” said Katie Butler, Director of Water Program Evaluations at the EPA Office of Inspector General. “The expense of these consent decrees really brings home the point that we really want to make sure that they're accomplishing the goals that they set out to achieve.”
The issues with the sewers go back more than a century. In parts of Atlanta, stormwater and sewage went into the same pipes. So in storms, it wasn't just rain that overflowed.
“We reached a point going into the ‘90s that we were having thousands of overflows and spills going into our waterways every year,” said Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Jason Ulseth.
His organization sued the City of Atlanta in the mid-1990s over the combined sewers. In 1998 the city entered into a consent decree with the EPA, agreeing to fix sewer issues under the oversight of the federal agency. Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management has spent about $2 billion since then.
In 2015, Butler’s office studied combined sewer overflow consent decrees in cities around the country, including Atlanta’s. At the time, she said, they found that Atlanta had made good progress.
Overall, said Ulseth, things are much better.
“We of course still have issues that we work to resolve,” he said. “But on a whole, the city's sewer infrastructure and combined and sanitary sewer systems are much better than they were 15-20 years ago.”